Hospital Website Guidance: Opening Links in New Windows


Screen capture of browser context window on a hyperlink.For some time now, standard Web guidance has been to open hyperlinks in the current window instead of opening them in new windows. For those not familiar with what I’m describing, the following provides an example of each:

There are multiple reasons that inform the recommended approach. If you’re not familiar with them, here are a few of the more important ones:

Don’t Break The Back Button. Ever.

A Web browser’s back button is sacrosanct, and as webmasters, we need to ensure that we preserve its functionality at all costs. Unfortunately, when a link opens in a new window, users cannot go “back” to retrace their steps or find a previous resource. In fact, if a user doesn’t notice that a link has opened in a new window (which is likely amongst a percentage of users with visual or attention impairments), they can easily get lost and frustrated. These are not experiences you want visitors to associate with your hospital’s brand.

Users Get To Decide Where To Open New Links

Fundamentally, where to open a new link is a user’s decision. Webmasters who make this decision for their site visitors are overstepping their bounds. For years browsers have provided users with the means to decide where to open new links. Right clicking a link opens a context window in most browsers. From here, users can decide to open a link in a new window, in a new tab, or download the resource, etc. And of course, the ubiquitous CTRL+Click option has opened links in new tabs for ages, as has middle-click. If a user has a regular need to open links in new windows, they already have the ability to do so.

Opening In New Windows Can Interfere With Screen Reader Software

Opening links in new windows can interfere with screen reading software that people with visual impairments rely on to access your website. I’ve heard more than one user of such software express frustration with links that open in new windows, and it’s hard not to remember these individuals when engaged in heated discussions over where to open new links.

The Exceptions To The Rule

As with all rules, there are some important exceptions. Even with the above in mind, there may be legitimate reasons for you to disregard the standard guidance and open links in new windows. The most common one is when opening a link in the current window would destroy an important user context. For example, if engaged in a checkout process, payment or form submission, it is usually considered legitimate to open links in a new window if attempting to open them in the current window would mean the user would lose their current context and would have to start their bill pay (or other purchase) over.

Another example is with help content in Web applications. It has been standard practice for years to open help pages for a Web app in a new window. As we see the distinctions blur between Web application and websites, there may be additional pressure to open some content in new windows.

There may be other reasons where you would want to open hyperlinks in a new window as well. Evaluate them on a case-by-case basis, and discuss with your usability experts or Geonetric content strategists if you are unsure.

A Common Justification That Doesn’t Cut The Mustard

One of the most common justifications I hear from webmasters is this, “We only open links to external websites in new windows. Doing this keeps users on our website and helps our analytics.” Let’s get one thing straight: the only thing that keeps users on your website is having content, resources and information that they want to consume. Using analytics as justification to provide users with an inconsistent and possibly confusing experience is disingenuous. While trickery might artificially help your metrics, it does so at the cost of poor user experience.

But What About PDFs?

After links to new websites, webmasters often defend opening PDFs in new browser windows with some variation of the following: “PDFs aren’t a native Web resource type. And they don’t contain the website navigation…” the logic goes, “therefore, we open them in a new browser window so as not to confuse the user.” There’s a certain amount of logic to this, and if you’re wont to invoke Jakob Nielson for backup, here’s your chance. But at the end of the day his guidance is nearly a decade old and Web browsers currently support native PDF rendering. We believe his guidance, while well intentioned, is dated. The truth is that the same factors that recommend against opening Web pages in new browser windows are also germane to PDFs. It is fundamentally a decision we should be leaving to our visitors. If you’re concerned about the lack of internal navigation in a PDF, understand that by opening them in a new window you’re breaking the most ubiquitous navigation element of all: the back button.

Consistency is Key

I alluded to this already, but regardless of what you do, try to be consistent. If you make the decision to open links to external websites in new windows, make sure you do this with all links to external websites. Remember too to be consistent across the entire website, not just the section you work in.

What To Expect From Geonetric

Geonetric’s role is to provide current and relevant guidance to our clients so that they can provide the best experience possible on their hospital websites. Ultimately, however, the decision of where to open hyperlinks rests solely with each client. Geonetric’s role in such cases is to verify that this is the result of an informed and intentional decision, and not the result of inattention or lack of awareness. Once we are sure of this, we will not keep raising this as an issue that needs attention.

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This entry was posted in Best Practices, Consumer Expectations, Content, Industry Trends, Marketing by Michael O'Neill. Bookmark the permalink.
Michael O'Neill

About Michael O'Neill

It’s not often you find a communications professional who is an expert writer, understands the power of social media and has the technical capabilities to embed on and contribute to software development teams. But that’s exactly the background Michael brought with him to Geonetric as the technical communications strategist. From writing eBooks to managing Geonetric’s digital presence, Michael uses his software know how and his marketing savvy to help tell Geonetric’s story through a variety of platforms. This former adjunct professor holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Worcester State College in Massachusetts and completed graduate level coursework at the University of Connecticut. In addition, Michael is also a Certified ScrumMaster, a contributing writer at iBusiness Magazine and a member of the Board of Directors at Gems of Hope. This new dad is known for his high coffee standards and has quite the following around the office when he brings in his favorite craft-roasted beans.

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